Notebook

Will Heaven: In passive-aggressive Britain, the badge is boss

There’s a grown-up solution for pregnant women forced to stands on trains (PA)

A week or so after Auberon Waugh died in 2001 – I remember it clearly, having just started at Downside, the school he hated so publicly – a critic of his decided to speak ill of him in a memorable letter to The Daily Telegraph.

It went something like this: “Haven’t we heard enough sycophantic tributes to the old goat? I once encountered Waugh on a crowded Underground train, where he smugly jumped into a seat that was obviously being left empty for a pregnant woman slowly working her way down the aisle. To my lasting shame, I didn’t remonstrate with him.”

After that display of cruelty (if it was true), I wonder how tolerant Waugh would be of today’s pregnant commuters who wear “baby on board” badges to prompt others to give up their seats. You see thousands of these things during rush hour.

He would probably find them passive-aggressive. I don’t exactly, but they’re not a good thing either. There are so few people who wouldn’t happily give up their seat for an expectant mother.

When it doesn’t happen, it’s because someone is unsure of themselves or isn’t concentrating. The grown-up solution to this is for the pregnant woman to say: “Would anyone mind giving me their seat?” She’d have a volunteer in milliseconds, no questions asked.

In rude modern Britain, however, she wears a badge, silently asserts her “right” to a seat, and absolutely fumes if the badge isn’t obeyed.

One woman even went undercover recently, secretly filming her bovine fellow passengers – as she no doubt saw them – in a video that went viral online, all because she was repeatedly kept standing in spite of her badge. Sorry, but that’s far more self-absorbed and rude than Auberon Waugh ever was.

We live in the age of passive-aggression – we’re all capable of it. At Westminster Cathedral’s Easter Vigil, I found myself sitting next to a sniffer, getting crosser by the minute.

Sniff sniff, he went, sniff – every few seconds. It was particularly bad during the choral music, which was frankly what drew me to the Cathedral in the first place. I came close to sarcastically offering him a tissue.

An hour in, during a heavenly rendition of Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus, he sniffed loudly about six times in 20 seconds, and my patience ran out: “Would you please. Stop. Sniffing,” I snapped. He apologised profusely and I felt wracked with guilt for the rest of the service for being so impatient (and was ticked off by my wife on the way home). Mind you, the sniffing stopped.

Occasionally, you will hear a perfectly intelligent and sophisticated person say something about Jewish people or Israel that quite unintentionally reveals a tiny anti-Semitic streak in their view of the world.

It’s also true when it comes to Catholicism, especially with a certain kind of English gent. A friend of mine who fits that description – a very nice and sensible guy – mentioned St Thomas More the other day, and practically spat out the fact that More was “a miserable prig”. It was the way he said it: a shallow, mildly anti-Catholic thought, most likely the product of a shallow, mildly anti-Catholic education – and one influenced by centuries of this country’s often extreme anti-Catholic bigotry. All this was on the surface only a few decades ago; sadly, it still lurks underneath.

Some Catholics are still unhappy with the “new” 2011 English translation of the Mass. They write open letters and blog posts claiming that it hasn’t bedded down with time, etc, and that the Vatican should about-turn.

To be honest, I know what they mean. The one line that I still trip over even after five years is the new version of “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”, which became, “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…”

It was only after recently reading Ronald Knox’s translation of the Gospel of Matthew, and the humble centurion’s plea to Jesus to heal his servant, that the penny dropped: we’re supposed to trip over this response, not recite it robotically. The new translation forces us to remember – yes, these meaningful words are taken from Scripture. They’re a historical account of a man’s conversation with the Son of God.

Will Heaven is comment editor of  The Sunday Telegraph